Journal Issue

Uncontrolled settlements: There are benefits to be gained from upgrading existing squatter settlements

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1976
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Callisto Eneas Madavo

In developing countries, as in some developed countries, rapid urban growth has been accompanied by slums and squatter settlements. Where property rights are firmly enforced and squatting effectively controlled, people are forced to live in overcrowded dwellings and the result is rundown neighborhoods and housing conditions—slums. Where there is no effective property control, people often invade land that they do not own, and build their own dwellings on it, usually without services, thus creating squatter settlements. In most cities in the developing world between one fourth and one half of the urban population lives in overcrowded, deteriorating, and centrally located slum neighborhoods, or in mushrooming, unserviced shantytowns on the periphery. In 1975, it was estimated that at least 200 million persons lived in almost intolerable conditions of physical congestion and squalor and their rate of growth was roughly twice the rate of overall urban growth and about four times the rate of total population increase. According to projections by the United Nations, urban population in developing countries will increase by some 1.3 billion over the next 25 years. If present trends are permitted to continue, 75 per cent will be slum-squatter dwellers.

In spite of the near intolerable environmental conditions in which they live, squatters have up to now shown a surprisingly high degree of popular initiative and cohesion. Some experts on urbanization have suggested, and rightly so, that the newcomers to urban areas who often constitute the squatter-slum population, are really a group of “pioneers” and builders of a new order in their societies who facilitate the transition from rural to urban life in many ways. Not only do they have to acquire skills and attitudes much different from those existing in the rural areas of their origin, but their motivations and behavioral patterns often change. In nations where ethnic divisions are pronounced, the bringing together of people in the cities often helps to weld a common nationalism. In this context, it is worth mentioning that mass political parties are usually more vibrant in shantytowns than in other parts of cities.

A popular misconception is that most squatters are unemployed. Surveys by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in different parts of the world have shown that this is not always so. As many as 90 per cent of squatter heads of household are usually employed. A significant proportion of them are self-employed in the informal sector—a sector characterized by small-scale, labor-intensive activities relying heavily on indigenous resources. The sector is unregulated and highly competitive and produces the kinds of goods and services affordable by a large part of the populace. Thus, while generally low paying, the informal sector plays an important role as a provider of employment, relatively cheap goods and services, and skills and competence essential for upward mobility.

Squatter settlements also represent a good illustration of self-reliant development. Their populations have been able to increase the stock of shelter, however poor the initial standard, by as much as five times the rate of public housing agencies. Nearly all the dwellings are built by self-help and on weekends or in the evenings when this labor is otherwise idle. The majority of such housing is owner-occupied, and continually being improved. For example, studies of squatter settlements in Zambia show that within the space of a few years, grass roofs are replaced by corrugated iron, and sun-dried brick walls by concrete blocks. Simultaneously, more rooms are added.

Public policy response

Unfortunately public policymakers have not always appreciated the productive potential of squatters. Governments have tended to harass “informal” sector economic activity (hawking, beer brewing, popular construction, etc.) in order to maintain the facade of “modernity” and “cleanliness” in their principal cities. Planners and decisionmakers have been preoccupied with the standards and esthetics of the urban enclave which results in servicing the few, and (through the enforcement of regulatory measures) stifling the creativity of the many. As a result, substantial resources have been wasted on planning resettlement and redevelopment projects, or worse, on spasmodic squatter demolition campaigns, instead of seeking to improve the lot of the urban poor.

An argument often heard to justify these attitudes toward squatters is that they have no business being in the city. Efforts have been made from time to time to send them back to the land. Lately, it has become fashionable to argue for rural development as a means of keeping potential migrants “down on the farm.” It is, however, well known that “back-to-the-land” movements have generally not succeeded, except in those countries employing force verging on outright denial of human rights. Similarly, while rural development should be emphasized, simple models have been developed which show that successful attacks on rural poverty lead to increased migration to urban areas in the long term. In the absence of direct and production increasing strategies to absorb new migrants into the urban areas, the poverty problem is likely to be shifted from the land to the towns.

In the early 1960s, several factors emerged which made large-scale eviction of squatters back to their homelands no longer tenable. First, was the increasing numbers of slum-squatter dwellers—over 200 million, as already indicated, by 1975. Second, squatters were becoming an increasingly well-organized and politicized power block. As Charles Abrams observed: “… squatting in the cities of the underdeveloped world today is usually open and defiant, tempting more squatting by its success” (Man’s Struggle for Shelter in an Urbanizing World, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1964). Third, ideology has played an important role in public policy change. For example, in Africa a number of governments are committed to egalitarian philosophies. In such a context severe policies toward squatters become increasingly untenable.

Intervention by outside advocates has also contributed significantly to changes in government policies. Through the 1960s a vigorous debate continued among social scientists on the desirability and the implications of rapid urbanization. Some saw so-called “premature” urbanization leading to parasitic slum-squatter settlements. Drawing on their empirical research in Latin American “barriadas,” proponents of the opposing view saw squatter dwellers as “a remarkable example of popular initiative and creativity, as well as courage and involvement.”

Aware that an effective strategy for attacking poverty in developing countries must necessarily promote both rural development and productive and efficient cities, international agencies began to look at unplanned communities more favorably. In 1970 the United Nations, with the Government of Colombia, sponsored an inter-regional seminar on Improvement of Slums and Uncontrolled Settlements at Medellín, Colombia. In 1972, the World Bank approved its first loan for self-help housing, including a small pilot squatter improvement scheme in Senegal. Concurrently, many governments, realizing the severe constraints on resources for development, began to promote self-help and self-reliance in urban development, incorporating squatter improvement as an integral part of housing policy. Today the World Bank is assisting such programs in Botswana, El Salvador, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. Similar assistance is under consideration for Korea, Pakistan, Peru, and the Philippines.

The Zambian project

Zambia provides an interesting case study of an evolution in public policy toward self-help, including squatter housing. Prior to independence in 1964, migration to urban areas had been administratively controlled through pass laws which restricted admission to those with official consent. Squatting was therefore a minor problem. With the advent of independence, rural-urban migration accelerated dramatically, and urban population doubled between 1963 and 1969 to reach 1.13 million, or 29 per cent of the total. According to various estimates, squatter population increased by between 19 and 25 per cent per annum over the period. That is, it doubled every three to four years.

In the mid-1960s—ahead of many other governments—Zambia began implementing “site and services” (serviced lots on vacant land), initially as a means of resettling squatters. By 1969, planned self-help housing was established to accommodate new growth. The Government accepted the fact that available resources were grossly inadequate for conventional contractor-built houses for every urban family, and at the start of the Second National Development Plan (1972–76), it instructed local authorities to provide serviced sites only. A review of the initial attempts to resettle squatters revealed that it was not possible to resettle all squatters who, by 1972, represented about one third of the total urban population. Therefore, as a corollary to its site and services policy, the Government determined to upgrade all improvable squatter settlements.

In 1973, Zambia requested World Bank assistance in the financing and implementation of its shelter program. A project was formulated comprising site and services and squatter upgrading affecting some 30,000 households, or about 40 per cent of the total in Lusaka at a cost of about $40 million. Although not catering for all the shelter requirements in the capital, the project was seen as the first of a series within the national program. As the project was the first systematic attempt at squatter upgrading (designed to improve four squatter complexes comprising nearly 24,000 households), it was also anticipated that the lessons learned in Lusaka would benefit other towns and cities throughout the country. This project got under way at the end of 1974, and the upgrading of the first squatter complex is expected to be completed by mid-1976.

The areas are being provided with water to standpipes, roads and drainage, and security lighting. Community facilities including schools, clinics, and multipurpose community centers (which will also serve as day-care and adult education centers) are being made available. The inhabitants will be given security of tenure in the form of a 30-year license to use the government-owned land under and immediately around their dwelling for residential purposes. Modest loans for materials are offered to enable residents to improve their dwellings.

The 30-year license is a novel idea in Zambia and special legislation was necessary for its implementation. Licensing involves the following steps. First a plan of the upgraded squatter area is prepared, based on an aerial photograph, showing proposed roads, land uses, and also identifying every dwelling by number. On completion of this plan, the settlement is declared an “Improvement Area,” thereby freezing further development in and around the vicinity. Numbers are then painted on each home and an identification card issued to the owner. Individual residents can then go to the City Council registry and apply for their license, much in the way one applies for an automobile license. The Zambian Improvement Areas registration thus represents not only a simple and inexpensive system of tenure, but a significant adaptation of the granting of land-use rights.

Minimum displacement

Efforts are also being made to “indigenize” other aspects of the upgrading scheme, such as the planning of layouts and service levels. Planners are seeking to retain the organic nature of squatter settlements by leaving intact as far as possible existing layouts and uses of space. The imposition of a grid pattern of roads and minimum lot sizes is avoided, to minimize displacement of families. Families which have to be moved to make room for infrastructure, or to thin out dense pockets within settlements, are resettled in vacant areas immediately adjacent. These “overspill” areas are serviced to the same extent as the existing settlement.

Only priority services at standards consistent with the residents’ ability to pay and the Government’s capacity to meet recurrent costs are being provided in the first phase. For example, no individual water connections or waterborne sewerage is being provided, although water mains are sized to service individual connections and waterborne sanitation later. Second phase upgrading, probably five to ten years hence, will provide waterborne sanitation.

Community involvement is a unique feature of the Zambian project. The residents are encouraged to participate in the planning and execution of the project. The objectives of the upgrading program are explained in the local language. A proposed layout plan for infrastructure and community facilities is presented, and the need to relocate some households is discussed. To give life to the sketch plan, the technical experts together with key representatives of the community walk the proposed roads and watermain pathways. Comments on changes are invited and, where feasible, changes are made. The infrastructure routes are then tentatively determined and marked on the ground. A further period of consultation is allowed since all concerned can now clearly see the impact of the proposed works. Marginal adjustments are made and the final plan produced.

So far, relocation of families affected by infrastructure has gone quite smoothly. Families receive relocation assistance in the form of transport for their belongings and salvageable building materials and loans for additional building materials. The loans can be substantial—as much as K 1,000 ($1,570) for businesses that are obliged to relocate, but they are generally set at K 250 ($390). With technical assistance, new structures are rapidly built in the overspill areas. By 1978, 17,000 dwellings will be upgraded and about 7,500 will be built in these overspill plots to meet essential resettlement needs and new growth.

Residents are to be involved in the digging of water trenches in addition to improving or constructing their own dwellings and completing the nonstructural elements of community facilities. Although group digging has not yet begun, it will be introduced once the program has gained momentum.

The upgrading of the first squatter complex, homes for about 40,000 inhabitants, is scheduled to be completed by June 1976, when work will have begun on the second complex for a population of 50,000. This will be followed by work on the remaining two smaller settlements. Concurrently, some 4,500 plots individually serviced with water and sewerage will be prepared in and around the city as part of the project.

The Indonesian project

Another stimulating example of upgrading is well under way in Jakarta, Indonesia. Older and much larger in scale than the Lusaka program, the story of “Kampung” (low-income neighborhood) improvement deserves special attention. Here are some of the highlights:

In 1969, as part of Indonesia’s First Five-Year Development Plan, the Jakarta City Council formulated the “Kampung” program for low-cost improvements in the physical environment and social services of the city’s areas where the urban poor were concentrated. The program provides paved roads and sidewalk drainage, piped water for standpipes, communal toilets, and garbage collection. It also includes schools, clinics, and other facilities geared to human development.

Bank assistance was requested in 1973, when some 2,400 hectares had already been improved, benefiting about 1.2 million persons at the modest capital cost of approximately $30 per capita. The Bank assisted project will facilitate the improvement of an additional 1,980 hectares by 1976, benefiting nearly one million more inhabitants. Project implementation will not only improve the community facilities (schools, clinics, etc.) part of the program, technical planning will also be improved to meet the financial capabilities of the municipality and individual beneficiaries, providing a built-in flexibility for future improvement.

As in Zambia, the improvement program is accompanied by a new serviced-sites component comprising some 8,000 lots. The lots are being provided with individual infrastructure services and, in the majority, core houses. Backlogs are being avoided through improvements, but new growth is accommodated through the provision of serviced expansion areas.

Although the Indonesian program has been very impressive to date, nevertheless need continues to outpace what has been provided so far. It is therefore expected that the improvement program will be continued and the site and services provision accelerated. To implement this expansion, the Bank assisted project includes funds for technical assistance to the Greater Jakarta Planning Board, the National Urban Development Corporation, and other agencies involved in planning and executing low-income shelter projects around the country.

Both the Indonesian and Zambian projects represent bold and promising approaches to slum and squatter settlements in developing countries. Their beneficial impact—providing the urban poor with a secure stake in the community through which they can advance and function more effectively as productive members—will be considerably strengthened by progressive incorporation of certain necessary elements. These include: (a) programs dealing directly with residents’ employment and productivity in improvement areas; (b) balanced overall shelter strategies with particular focus on the urban poor; and (c) appropriate and effective pricing policies.

Generating employment

Employment generation is a critical area that neither Zambia nor Indonesia are addressing directly by their upgrading programs. There are, of course, some jobs created during construction phases, but much more is required. Where space for small business activity is being serviced, this should also lead to more job opportunities. However, no comprehensive effort is yet being made to strengthen the economic base of settlements through direct assistance to the informal sector.

There is evidence from many surveys that the actual level of productivity and earnings by the urban poor, including migrants, are generally higher in urban areas than in the rural areas they leave behind. Migration to urban areas therefore apparently results in net gains to the economy. The contribution of such inputs to national productivity would be even greater were it not for institutional barriers; for example, regulations governing popular construction, and economic constraints that tend to stifle the initiative of the urban poor. There is also the almost total absence of institutional support (credit, access to serviced land, and markets) for informal sector activity, whether housebuilding or business ventures. Upgrading projects must therefore emphasize both reform and institutional support to informal sector activity.

Shelter policy

Squatter upgrading schemes necessarily deal with backlogs. In the absence of a vigorous ongoing provision of land serviced to affordable standards, more squatting will occur, requiring yet more upgrading. This pattern is both economically expensive and politically unacceptable over the long term.

New serviced areas are essential for another reason. Not all slums and squatter areas are improvable—because of location, soil or slope conditions, size, accessibility to basic infrastructure, and employment centers. Improvement must therefore be accompanied by some relocation where necessary from the pathways of infrastructure, and of those living in unimprovable settlements. Unless alternative new areas are set up, improvement will either induce greater densities in upgraded areas, or expansion of those settlements omitted from the upgrading program.

Again, upgrading and site and services projects cannot be divorced from the measures aimed at the housing needs of the middle-income and upper-income groups, in order to ease distorting pressures on the allocation of new plots. If upper-income groups are not also adequately provided for, there is a tendency to pre-empt such plots from the urban poor much in the same way as conventional public housing programs do now. On the other hand, adoption of policies conducive to providing the middle-income and upper-income groups with shelter at economic rents can generate resources, of which some may be used to extend services to the poor.

One of the most attractive features of slum and squatter upgrading is its low cost. The total per capita investment involved in the Indonesian and Zambian Bank assisted projects is about $40 and $35, respectively, which puts large-scale program implementation within the reach of most countries. The per capita investment associated with new site and services housing which have to accompany such upgrading is considerably higher, ranging typically from $100 to $300. Even so, the upgrading along with site and services is still considerably cheaper than contractor-built housing which is usually about ten times as expensive.

Low cost as they are, upgrading projects nevertheless still have to be paid for. Extensions to infrastructure and community services networks mean increased burdens on municipal finances. Although conditions and needs differ from country to country, the pricing of such projects has usually involved both implicit and explicit subsidies covering such items as land, water tariffs, and other features. Where there is scope for charging differential utility tariffs in order to cross-subsidize the poor, or to service other land (industrial or high-cost land) from which transferable surpluses can be generated, sustainable levels of subsidies to the poor need not create a problem. It must be admitted, however, that the rich are so few and the poor so many in most cities in the developing world that the scope for such transfers is necessarily limited.

Even at subsidized rates, there will often be as many as 10–15 per cent of squatter families who simply cannot afford to pay. Further, a large percentage of those who can pay in theory often have unstable sources of income. So collection of payments from target income groups who are so poor is bound to be difficult. Defaults as high as 50 per cent or more may well be experienced. Whether public agencies would continue improvement programs under these circumstances is open to question.

The Zambian project is experimenting with methods of collecting small monthly payments from large groups of extremely poor people. Systems employing both individual and group incentives and sanctions will be tried. Little data exist at this stage to enable precise evaluation of these new approaches. The need to examine the experiences of these first generation projects carefully cannot be overemphasized. This is the only way we can learn and do better in the future.

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